Empire State of Mind - By Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the June 12, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

The victory by WinStar Farm’s Drosselmeyer in the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) was a poignant moment for Thoroughbred racing in New York State, as many of the connections shared their love for Belmont Park. It clearly showed the importance of Belmont, not only to New Yorkers but to the Thoroughbred industry as a whole.

Winning jockey Mike Smith paid homage to Belmont as a place “that was like a dream” when he arrived in New York more than two decades ago. Trainer Bill Mott has won the biggest races on the planet while using Belmont as his main base. WinStar president Doug Cauthen recalled that he “thought I’d gone to heaven when I showed up at Belmont Park,” when he came to New York as a teenager working for trainers Laz Barerra and P.G. Johnson.

The New York Racing Association has taken plenty of shots recently, many of them well-deserved. Several people on hand at the track over the weekend actually think the beleaguered franchise may have been pummeled enough and is now ready to get back up and dust itself off.

Doesn’t the very nature of the business require us to be optimists?

On a day when 45,243 came out to the track for a non-Triple Crown classic finale, there seem to be four factors in play that indicate racing in New York has bumped along the bottom long enough and is perhaps poised for a turnaround.

First, the video lottery terminal process for Aqueduct hopefully is now being handled professionally. In mid-May it was announced that six bidders were viable candidates in the newest bidding process for the delayed casino project.

The state first approved the project in 2001, but a series of legal, financial, and political setbacks have delayed the casino for nearly a decade through three gubernatorial terms. The latest effort to award the license to the ill-fated and ill-equipped AEG group was an embarrassment even by New York political standards.

This latest—and hopefully last—round seems to be on the up-and-up, and most in the Empire State are confident the results will stick.

Secondly, on May 24, New York State lawmakers approved a $25 million loan for NYRA, keeping the organization solvent at least through the end of the year. Prior to the Belmont there was plenty of handwringing that NYRA might close after its signature race due to a lack of funds. The sentiment of those outside the industry might be turning as they are coming to realize a good portion of NYRA’s woes lies with the state-operated New York City Off-Track Betting, which owes the franchise $17 million.

Which brings us to our third point: The time is ripe for reform of NYCOTB, which is perhaps the only bookmaker in the history of the world not making money. The day prior to the Belmont Stakes, NYCOTB chairman Meyer “Sandy” Frucher resigned after failing to get any traction for his plan to finance the company’s turnaround by floating municipal bonds. It’s a golden opportunity at a time when simulcast and off-track wagering is losing market share to advance deposit wagering. NYRA’s Rewards ADW program offers a better-than-solid alternative than heading to an OTB.

Lastly, as people enjoyed themselves at Belmont on the first Saturday in June, the buzz is still about what is happening down the shore in New Jersey at Monmouth Park. So far, less is proving to be more.
NYRA vice president Hal Handel, who previously worked for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, gives New Jersey huge marks for trying something so radical.

“On first blush, the numbers look terrific,” he said in the Belmont paddock June 5. “The real litmus test for them will be when they get to counting up the money at the end of the year in October. If this helped them, then it’s a home run.”
The three-day-a-week Monmouth program is off to a fast start, but let’s remember, by law NYRA must run 250 days. Any reduction of race days will have to come through Albany.

It’s a change worth pondering. Like the change from the pre-race song of “New York, New York” to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Apparently, it didn’t play well on television, but am I the only one who liked the newer version? 

Evan I. Hammonds Executive Editor


Leave a Comment:

Frank J.

Evan, if it means anything, I take the family to Belmont every year and every single employee at the track are very curteous and very nice and helpful. But no, the new song sucked hearing it in the paddock area and God knows how it sounded on tv.

08 Jun 2010 3:07 PM

That song, NY State of Mind, sung before the Belmont Stakes was horrible.  I can't think of anything more aweful,  except for maybe the chant from the Omen and even that would have been better.

08 Jun 2010 3:23 PM

Yes, you are the only one that liked the newer version.  A classic example of fixing what wasn't broken in the first place.  Bring back New York, New York!!!!!

08 Jun 2010 3:29 PM

I didn't like the new song and, apparently, the horses didn't either...VBG

08 Jun 2010 3:41 PM

but am I the only one who liked the newer version?

Yes, yes you are.  Even Make Music For Me found the new song revolting.

08 Jun 2010 4:18 PM

I bring myself and my 2 kids to Belmont every other week.  I can't think af a more beautiful and fun place to spend the day, plus share with my children my deep love of horses, it definitely worked.

But that new song, OMG it was horrible.  First of all I was so disappointed when New York New York wasn't played, the singer couldn't hit the high notes, it was just horrible.  PLEASE, go back to the old song!!!

08 Jun 2010 4:36 PM

Glad to know I wasn't alone. I don't have a problem with the song but it just didn't seem to "work" for this and seemed quite awkward instead. And yes, I was watching on tv.

08 Jun 2010 5:33 PM

I thought the new song was awful and a really poor decision. The theme on tv seemed to be about New York's passion for everything, including racing and their loyalty to the track. All I kept thinking was nothing really drives that point home more than hearing the entire crowd at Belmont singing along to New York New York. Then to subject everyone to that awful song and have to watch how uncomfortable the crowd seemed sitting there not knowing what they were listening to. The decision really disappointed me.

08 Jun 2010 5:36 PM

The kids hated the old song. This one will bring young people  to the Belmont in droves next year.

Nothing wrong with the sweet young lady singing it either.

The crime was in the way ABC staged it with tired old pans of tired old drunks instead of a compelling video of Belmont related themes to back up the child as she sang her heart out.

Just another reason why production of these  signature events should be taken away from the networks, except for broadcast rights.

08 Jun 2010 5:43 PM

OMG!!!!!  What was Belmont thinking?  Who were they pandering to with that AWFUL song? No wonder Drossie won -- he's probably deaf!

08 Jun 2010 6:21 PM
Paula Weglarz

I do hope NY racing turns a good corner. To me, Belmont & Saratoga hold my heart captive with their history & significance.

And... can't handle the Belmont without Ol' Blue Eyes! Bring back Sinatra, please!!!!

08 Jun 2010 6:23 PM
dr fager01

Wake up horse racing, newer is better for your product. step into the 21st century. no disrespect to frank and the old new york grandstand bums that have gone before, yes i am in in favor of the new, for christ sakes we need it.

08 Jun 2010 6:35 PM

That new song was baaaad...I was squirming as much as MMFM...the old one had "swing" plus everyone could sing along...

PS My husband is a musician..he left the room until the song was over..

08 Jun 2010 6:48 PM

Bring back real tradition with the sidewalks of new york!

08 Jun 2010 7:07 PM
Jim P

The new song is good enough, though I miss seeing the fans sing along with the old version. Perhaps it is a needed update for new fans?

What I didnt'like was that ABC cut away during the middle of the bloody song for a commercial. There were more commercials and less coverage in this race than any in my history of watching. Some of the coverage lasted less than a minute before going back to commercial.

There was no interview with Bill Mott -- the Hall of Famer, the trainer of Cigar, the Class Act, in his very 1st Belmont win -- but what would he have to add??!!

The whole coverage was disjointed and out of rhythem. I'm surprised the actually got the race in. They drug their "stories" out until I thought I must have missed them between commercials.

I got to see more odds than I would have at the track. If I'm in my home watching, I've probably already bet or a I'm not betting. I'm watching the program to see the horses -- more horses less odds. Everyone of these horses has some kind of story and a personality. I don't identify with the jockeys that much, more with the trainers, and much more with the horses and who they are.

And can we stop calling male horses "it"!! What'[s a female horse? She "it". When Z and Rachel race against the boys is it "It vs. It?"

If it's all about "It" why give them names? Names humanize them. Better to be politically correct and just go with the ITs.  

08 Jun 2010 7:07 PM
Jean Lubin (equine artist)

  We were SO disappointed not to hear "New York, New York" as we watched television coverage here in San Diego of the Belmont.  Whenever we visit the Big Apple, I'm always humming that song.

    We had just returned from a trip to Kentucky including a tour of WinStar -- go Drosselmeyer!!

08 Jun 2010 7:15 PM
Virgil Fox

You didn't need to be a musician to realize that song was crap and the performance of the song was crap.

With the cut to commercial ads, someone at ABC obviously realized it was not going over to well.

It was bad enough that they did not show the Manhattan Stakes.

The race (Belmont Stakes) was a fairly good race and I was lucky enough to hit the TRI, but that song was a total buzz kill - and I wasn't even drinking!

The person who planned that performance should be fired and the person who cut to commercial should get an Eclipse Award.

- Peace

08 Jun 2010 8:06 PM
Evan Hammonds

Wow; I can't believe all the comments are about the song - doesn't the importance of racing New York to the industry rate at least more than one comment? I like 'New York New York' but will concur with jimf, the real song is 'Sidewalks of New York'

08 Jun 2010 9:38 PM

OK, the Empire State Of Mind as sung on TV this weekend would've gotten gonged by Simon Cowell.  But it needs to stay, so that the sport's marquee event in NY doesn't keep showing its age with every overplayed, overrated note.  Besides, you get any legit R&B star to sing it, and it'll sound much better.  The Belmont needed a facelift on the face of bad publicity, and by God, it got what it needed.

Now they just need the horses, because these cards are getting painful.  Maybe 8-race weekdays can help, if they card an extra race or two on weekends to pick up the slack.  Better that than overpaying bad horses to run at Monmouth.

08 Jun 2010 9:59 PM


Thank you for your excellent article!  My concern is not with what music is played, but what is happening to NYRA and racing in NY.

The NY Governor and legislature should all be voted out of office.  They, along with NYRA managers, have turned racing in NY into a shambles for the public and fans of horses and racing, as well as trainers, their employees and owners.  NYCOTB should have never been rescued from bankruptcy!  One wonders who was paid off to smooth the way for that to happen! Personally, I don't believe video terminals will save racing, but NY government has dropped the ball too often on that issue to prove whether it will work or not.  

My opinion is that NYRA needs to really look at reducing the number of race days during the year and present a coherent plan to the legislature and lobby the powers that be.  I have attended races at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga for quite a few years.  Saratoga is always busy, because of the elites and vacationers.  For the last several years NYRA has been gutting the quality Grade 1 races and holding them in Saratoga.  If that trend continues Belmont will fall to a developers wrecking ball and Aqueduct will just sink into ignominy.  Of the three tracks Belmont is the most beautiful and 'user friendly'.  The paddock is the best, as you can really have eye to eye contact with the horses (only Monmouth's paddock is a cut above to a horse lover) and you don't have hundreds of people camping out with their coolers and chairs all around the paddock as as in Saratoga.  Also at Belmont you have the beautiful statue of Secretariat surrounded with lovely trees, as well as the lovely grave where Ruffian is buried.  I did notice on Belmont Stakes Day that there seemed to be a new grave covered with lovely orange flowers. Would you happen to know if it is a new grave and whose it would be?  I have to say, the staff at Belmont is always friendly and efficient.

My suggestion to NYRA would be:

Night racing at Aqueduct and Belmont on Thursdays and Fridays to draw in younger people who want a fun night out. Continue Saturday racing as it is and a shorter racing day on Sundays.  Shorten the racing dates at Aqueduct as it is freezing cold out there for the horses as well as humans.

I do prefer NY, NY to be played on Belmont Stakes Day - young or old - every New Yorker and out-of-towner loves that song by 'ole blue eyes'.

08 Jun 2010 11:25 PM

No respect for tradition - that dreadful music even freightened the horses! Why does everybody tear up at my "My Old Kentucky Home" Tradition!! Bring back "Sidewalks of New York"!!!

09 Jun 2010 7:57 AM
Alan Ehrenman

I'd like to know who the genius is who made the decision to use this new song. It sucked, sucked, sucked. What was wrong with New York, New York? For that matter, what was wrong with Sidewalks of  New York?

09 Jun 2010 8:19 AM

The song itself is great- when sung by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z! But no one can ever take the place of Alicia's performance and shouldn't even attempt to do their own rendition. I was glad when they cut her performace short by going to commercial break!!

09 Jun 2010 9:06 AM
Bill L

Back to Sidewalks of New York----Empire State of Mind was totally ridiculous.

09 Jun 2010 9:12 AM

tvnewsbadge 08 Jun 2010 5:43 PM "This one will bring young people  to the Belmont in droves next year."  -I wouldn't hold my breath!  

Virgil Fox 08 Jun 2010 8:06 PM "The person who planned that performance should be fired and the person who cut to commercial should get an Eclipse Award."  -Amen!

09 Jun 2010 9:28 AM
Kevin Stafford - The Aspiring Horseplayer

You "liked" the new song?  Do you mean that you enjoy the JayZ/Alicia Keys version or that you actually found Jasmine Villegas' performance enjoyable?

If the latter - then yes, you are in the decided minority.  I've heard wounded donkeys making more pleasurable noise than that nonsense.

The only "enjoyment" I got from that song was laughing hysterically when it became clear that they had cut her performance short and gone to commercial break.  Thank merciful God almighty!

Of course, any song that talks about being the "new Sinatra" and contains lyrics about "mommy" being ridden by everyone "just like a bus route" probably has no business in such a classy venue.

I mean, why not just have a live gangsta rap concert with "artists" calling the horses and jockeys "biotches" and "mofos" if we're going to go that route.  

Otherwise - great article.  I was just dumbfounded that anyone without a lifesize poster of Justin Bieber on their wall could actually have found that "performance" even remotely acceptable.  :-)

09 Jun 2010 9:41 AM
Shauna H

I have been going to Belmont for years and to my delight, I could not get over the number of young people at the track on Belmont Stakes Day this year!  It was my observation that the majority of the crowd were young and new to the sport!  Most people I talked to were there for the first time ever.  I was so excited to see visible proof of a new generation embracing a day at the track.

09 Jun 2010 9:57 AM

Go back to Frank Sinatra's New York, New York.!!!!!

09 Jun 2010 10:15 AM
Greg J.

    Good article Evan, BUT, About that song, I was about 100 feet from the young lady performing it, And, While she might be a good young singer, It was a terrible choice to replace a classic!  There is no way that song will be back next year, That is if there is a next year for The Belmont...

Just compare this year to last year:

2009 Belmont, "New York, New York":


2010 Belmont, "Empire State of Mind":


Finally, I believe Drosselmeyer was the only colt with cotton in his ears, Which would explain his victory  :)

09 Jun 2010 11:27 AM

Change is not always a good thing. When its not broke don't fix it. The song is a classic. Always trying to chage things to draw a younger crowd, makes me sick.

09 Jun 2010 12:04 PM

Do you think in fifty year's they will be humming whatever that Jayzee song is ? I could definitely picture a baby grand on the apron with Billy Joel (or someone close!)doing New York State of Mind. Dream on.

09 Jun 2010 12:18 PM

I'm glad to read that I wasn't the only one upset about the song! The ABC transmission was a fiasco...the audio was bad..you could not hear the comments because of the noise...NBC did it better with the Derby and Preakness.

09 Jun 2010 12:21 PM

The new ditty scared the horses!  Anything that scares the horses does not belong.

09 Jun 2010 12:37 PM

Agreed - that song was horrendous.  We were also grateful it was cut short by commercial.  I kept thinking how long is this going to last.  It was torture.

Change can be good - but we wouldn't dare suggest switching out "My Old Kentucky Home" for "Run for the Roses" (as nice as the Fogelberg song is).  Some traditions are worth keeping.

09 Jun 2010 3:05 PM

I strongly agree with most people here in that EMPIRE STATE OF MIND really stunk.  In the first place, I had never heard of the girl who sang it.  Actually, I never even heard of the song.  She sun it horribly, and thank God ABC bolted away from her in mid-song to air a commercial.  For once, a commercial was welcome.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  I don't blame Make Music For Me getting unsettled.  Whatever happened to SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK or Frank Sinatra's legendary NEW YORK, NEW YORK!  Both of them make me tear up, but this song made me want to throw up!  Yuck!

09 Jun 2010 3:19 PM
dr fager01

Nuff said, great tune, butchered by subpar talent.  Maybe if they could afford the mighty Jay-z and the fabulous mrs Alicia keyes, it would have been a hell of a lot more attractive,it would also show horse racing in new york not only to be a great and oustanding tradition. But would also show that horse racing can also embrace and get with the new.

09 Jun 2010 3:55 PM
Kevin A Burke

The ABC Broadcasters placed the blame of the horses antics in the post parade on the rendition of the new song.

That poor girl has to deal with enough pain over the results of her performance; (Keep in mind she was a midweek replacement for a star, singing an unfamiliar song not written for her style and tone, with a poor on track and broadcast sound system, etc)  She should not be saddled with the additional unfair burden of responsibility of poor horse performance.

That responsibility is squarely on the hands of NYRA and their insistence on the Detention Barn System. More then one horse on Belmont Day, not just the Stakes Race, and on every race day at a NYRA Track, leaves it's race in the Detention Barn.

It is not politically smart, or wise to publicly criticize this system. The closet I have ever heard a trainer comment publicly in a negative manner about it was Nick Zito, when he said of Ice Box, "He was ready to race these past days. He just left his race somewhere".

I do not think you will see Ice Box at a NYRA Track anytime soon.

As for the winner and second place horse, much was made of the fact that they had a race ovfer the course. True it might have helped, but the "Big Sandy" was two different surfaces on both those days.

More of a help to both these horses was that they had experienced the horror of the detention barn. It bothered them less then the other horses because they were familiar with the insanity a horse has to endure for six plus hours prior to racing.            

09 Jun 2010 3:55 PM
needler in Virginia

Susan is ABSOLUTELY correct! Even the older jockeys who have ridden in the Derby several times say you'll "tear up" when everyone begins to sing MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME; and then there's MARYLAND, MY MARYLAND which ALSO speaks to the traditions of these three particular races. Now we come to the Belmont "weepy moment", which used to come at the singing of the SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK and then moved on to NEW, NEW YORK (a wonderfully appropriate song for this race!). That piece of garbage that masqueraded as a song was an insult to the traditions we've come to hold so dear. The only people who got weepy over THAT were those who heard it for what it was...........

BLAH, I'm all for change when change is needed and God knows racing needs some help, but if that "song" is what it takes to get the younger fans out to the track, then racing is not only in trouble.....it is DOOMED!

Bet you can't tell how I feel about this, can you???

Cheers and safe trips.

09 Jun 2010 4:10 PM

I seriously hope this is the only year they use that dreadful song.  I couldn't hear much of it over the Belmont crowd, and thank goodness for that.

I found it ironic that Belmont Park was playing random Frank Sinatra tunes over the loudspeaker the first hour the track was open.  It put me in a great frame of mind and relaxed me after making the frantic dash to secure a good spot. Rap/R&B is not a good fit for horse racing, I'm sorry...I mean, would they use a Sinatra song to open a drag race? No. That's how I felt about this.

Bring back "New York, New York," NYRA.  Please.  I beg of you.

09 Jun 2010 4:45 PM

Yeah, quit bashing that kid, she did a great job, not her fault that ABC thought panning drunks was a good counterpoint to her singing.... and I know I'll get slammed for saying this, but I never like that Sinatra song either.

Music wise, Belmont sold out and lost it's soul when it ditched Sidewalks of New York.

09 Jun 2010 10:29 PM
jessica rodriguez

The girls performance was quite enjoyable and she was adorable. You are just not used to the change. This is 2010 change is great. These negative comments are ridiculous! I'm totally with you Evan! Great job NYRA. A much needed change!

10 Jun 2010 12:27 AM
Allan Bullock

I totally loved the new song!! I have been coming to the races for years. I thought it was a pleasant surprise. The young girl that sang it was amazing!

10 Jun 2010 12:31 AM

One of the BIGGEST disappointments in the Triple Crown, was that outrageous, horrible song, sung by a mediocre girl. It was BORING, LONG, and actually bothered a horse on the track. New York had it right for years, with New York, New York - it was PERFECT! Bring it back in 2011!!!!!!!!!!!!!

10 Jun 2010 6:50 AM

Bring back NEW YORK, some traditions should be left alone,---what's next no Mint Juleps??? The song was horrible, the television broadcast cut the poor girl off, and they didn't even show the turf race- I for one don't really care if ESPN, NBC or ABC show another big day broadcast of racing-- they do a bad job talking about the trivial- thank god for the mute button.

10 Jun 2010 10:01 AM

I agree completely about NYCOTB.  What sort of idiocy is required to drive a gambling parlor to bankruptcy?  Unbelievable.

Meanwhile, the renewal of NYRA leases was only in February 2008!  And we are seeing increasing complaints about quality.  While the Northeast Corridor market (tracks between Saratoga and Colonial, speaking broadly) will always be locked in competition for quality horses, NYRA will have to respond to the challenge laid down by New Jersey's restructuring of its days and meets.  The faster they move the better.

I agree with Mr. Hammonds, the spirit and forward thinking indicated by introducing the new song is important, and hopefully not just restricted to superficial matters like this.

NYRA must be looking to insist to the inefficiency experts in Albany that they have to change their arrangements or the state will be having to dole out more corporate welfare to organizations that they supposedly contract to generate revenue for them.

For the record, I thought bringing in New York, New York in 1997 was cheap.  Bring back Sidewalks of New York or find a arrangement of Empire State of Mind better suited to the event.

10 Jun 2010 1:40 PM
westward way

Really ? all these coments about the song? I was there, The park was beautiful, the fans happy to be there. remember 45,000 fans showed up without a triplecrown bid.

10 Jun 2010 7:24 PM

Evan, Alex B. kept sending me nasty texts from New Orleans during that song...

Was it ABC/ESPN or NYRA that had the bright idea to not play "New York, New York"?

And just to let everyone know, about 15 minutes after the last race Saturday, "New York, New York" was played over the tracks sound system.

10 Jun 2010 9:47 PM

Needler, tell us how you really feel! ;) Don't hold back now!

And yes, someone please bring back Sidewalks of New York. (East Side, West Side...)

As far as the Detention Barn goes, wouldn't it make more sense to have tighter security around the horses' regular stalls? Get rid of the Detention Barn all together and just beef up security everywhere else? Would this make more sense than what NYRA has now?

11 Jun 2010 9:47 AM
cat lady

OMG!! I waited and waited for the traditional song to be played during the post parade and... what the...?? Some fetus tries to sing a whole different song that I didn't even reconize! Why are they trying to get newer and younger fans instead of trying to keep us die-hards? I have not missed a single Belmont since the 60's and I don't ever remember anyone complaining about the TRADITIONAL songs NYNY or Sidewalks of NY! Change is only good if it benefits, and this change was totally BAD!!!

11 Jun 2010 9:17 PM
needler in Virginia

Dawn, I'm glad you caught me...I was holding back the way I REALLY felt, but you got me!! You can, however, usually count on me to let you know exactly how I feel. The detention barn leaps to mind...wonder why that is?? You're right about it, and its' existence needs to be re-thought; security? YES! Good for the horses' mental states? NO! Never mind they're already wired for takeoff at the slightest thing, the barn has always been a problem. Why not find another way to have security be tighter than a.........well you get my drift. SEE?? I really can go for change. But that nasty song really got me going; I'd bet you never could have guessed that, could you??

Cheers, good racing and safe trips to all.

11 Jun 2010 10:05 PM

The audio production for this race SUCKED!  Whether the song was appropriate is another issue. Did any other viewers notice that the crowd noise covered everything else?  You couldn't hear the call.  Someone in audio production should be fired!

Bring back the young people or racing is dead.

14 Jun 2010 10:12 AM
Rick J

Mr. Hammonds, you really liked "Empire State of Mind"?  That song and the rest of his Junk Music doesn't do it for me.  

Hmmm, Jay-Z, (in his earlier swill)wasn't he also the guy who sung about it's OK to shoot and kill Cops.  

I guess Mr. Z is all through with that gangster nonsense.  Why not suck in the public with a New York song and pile up more millions. Apparently, you have been taken in.

I Haven't!!

27 Jun 2010 1:29 AM

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